Of the many sources of carbon emissions the United States must reduce in order to thwart climate change, the most surprising may be its forests. According to a new report out today, logging in US forests reduces the potential forest carbon sink by over a third, preventing critical action on climate change.
If the US is serious about solving the climate crisis and providing communities a safety net against extreme weather events, it needs to scale-up its forest protection substantially, says the report, The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency, released by the conservation group Dogwood Alliance on the International Day of Forests.
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli
Understanding the scope of CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation requires a long view.
The report estimates that 60 percent of the carbon emitted from logging between 1700-1935 has yet to be recovered from the atmosphere. This makes planting trees today to mitigate current emissions from fossil fuels problematic — trees planted today cannot be viewed as offsetting fossil fuel emissions when the US has yet to offset carbon emissions from past logging, the report says.
“We need to reduce emissions from logging in the US and massively scale up the amount of carbon stored in our forests in the next 20 to 30 years,” to reach negative emissions and curb the worst effects of climate change, says Danna Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Dogwood Alliance and co-author of the report.
The US is the largest producer and consumer of wood products in the world. From 2000 to 2012, forests in the Southeastern US experienced four times the rate of disturbance from logging as South American rainforests. And yet, the logging industry still boasts that US forests sequester 11 to 13 percent of US carbon emissions each year. “We hear this all the time… as if this is something to be proud of,” laments Smith. Considering that the global average for carbon sequestration by forests is 25 percent, it is apparent that the US has a lot of catching up to do.
Currently, logging in the US is reducing the capacity of US forests to store carbon by 35 percent. This figure would be worse if soil carbon dioxide emissions associated with logging were also considered, the report says.
Just like forests, healthy, intact soil provides important ecosystem services, including sequestering carbon. When forests and soils are disturbed through logging, they emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and their ability to store carbon is compromised.
However, if the US “halted deforestation, protected existing forests, and expanded and restored degraded forests,” it “could reduce annual emissions by 75 percent over the next half century.” The benefits would be magnified if fossil fuels were rapidly phased out during this same time period.
Dogwood Alliance hopes that the report will help reframe the way policymakers think about the role of forests in contributing to and mitigating climate change. By increasing forest protection, expanding and improving the habitat value of existing forests, and phasing out fossil fuels simultaneously, the US could eventually hope to achieve negative emissions- sequestering more carbon than it emits from logging and fossil fuels.
The report also shows that protection of tropical forests has overshadowed the protection of temperate forests like those in the US. Under current international guidelines, such as those put forth by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under the IPCC Land Use and Land Use Change framework, a country like Indonesia is more likely to incur penalties for converting its forest land to palm oil plantations compared to when the US converts forests into tree plantations. This is because the guidelines tend to favor countries with less primary forest, a boon to the US where only 15 percent of its forests are over 100 years old.
Under these guidelines, the US is allowed to count any land that has a forest cover as offsetting carbon emissions. This includes tree plantations that should not be counted as long-term carbon storage as the trees on it will eventually be logged, the report argues. “[Plantations] are not forests and we need to stop calling them forests” because they do not support the same level of biodiversity and they are not as good at storing carbon, Smith says.
Additionally, the US has marketed its supposedly sustainable forestry practices to sell its wood products overseas, such as wood pellets that are used as a “sustainable” alternative to coal in the European Union. However, studies estimate that burning wood pellets releases 50 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere compared to coal. “When independent scientists look at this issue, they come to the same basic conclusion: Burning trees to generate electricity is not good for the climate,” Smith says. Europe is currently working to revise its policy of using wood biomass asformof energy, and there are opportunities at all levels of government to reform unsustainable practices like these, she says.
For Smith, the connection between degraded forest ecosystems and the social and ecological impact of climate change is clear. Two out of the five most expensive natural disasters in the world in 2016were floodevents in the southeastern US, a region where logging helps drive the local economy and there are very few protected forests. Rural,low-income,and African-American communities tend to bear the biggest brunt of these disasters. Protecting and encouraging biological diversity of forests, rather than the plantation-style monocultures common in the logging industry, would lessen the impact of natural disasters, Smith says.
“Biodiversity underpins all of the ecosystem services that forests provide,” she says, arguing that a diverse forest is better at pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and stabilizing water supplies. She hopes that the next round of international climate talks will result in countries crafting policy that prioritizes aggressive forest protection, and puts pressure on the US to do the same.
In the meantime, consumers can help take pressure off of forests by reducing their consumption of wood products, including disposable paper products. “Our days of tossing our forests into the trash need to come to an end,” Smith says. “One hundred years from now, people will be way more thankful that they have natural flood control, an abundant supply of fresh water, and that we’ve avoided the catastrophe we’re headed towards, than if they had paper plates.”
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that logging is responsible for one-third of all US carbon emissions.